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Monday, 25 January 2016

FLYING IN THE FACE OF FAIRNESS. Why I hope UK authors and illustrators will 'think twice' about accepting sponsorship from Emirates Airline

While I generally try to keep the tone of this blog light (some might say trivial) I occasionally feel obliged to post about weightier issues. This is one of those posts. Sorry if it feels a bit ranty in places, but it’s something I care about.

With climate change a driving force behind tragedies such as Typhoon Haiyan and the Syrian conflict
as well as problems nearer to home, isn’t it time we cut back on CO2 intensive aviation emissions?

Today book blogger Zoe Toft and I are launching the Think Twice campaign to highlight ethical concerns about the sponsorship of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai.

Generally speaking, I’m all for businesses funding the promotion of literature and literacy through the sponsorship of book festivals, book awards, reading programmes or other initiatives. However it should be recognised that both sides benefit from a sponsorship deal. For a business, sponsoring an event like an international book festival is a PR opportunity. By associating themselves with high-profile, respected authors and illustrators, a business raises its own profile and gains respectability.

Authors and illustrators are usually happy to offer a little respectability by association in exchange for sponsorship. However there are exceptions; Nestlé and Amazon-sponsored book awards have been shelved in recent years as a result of authors taking a principled stand against sponsors they regard as unethical. Ethics are subjective and individual authors and illustrators will differ on where they choose to draw the line. The Think Twice Campaign hopes to persuade many authors and illustrators that Emirates Airline are on the wrong side of that line.

Each year the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature hosts an impressive roll call of prominent figures from the world of literature including many popular UK authors and illustrators. Emirates Airline, the festival’s sponsor, is wholly owned by the Dubai government, part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Think Twice Campaign offers three good reasons why UK authors and illustrators might want to think twice about attending the festival in 2016 or future years:

  • FREE SPEECH: Political opponents are persecuted, tortured and imprisoned by the airline’s owners. Amnesty International estimate that at least 67 critics of the UAE government are currently in prison for speaking out in favour of greater democracy and government accountability.

By publicly pledging their support for the campaign, authors and illustrators can send the message that:

  • The Dubai government must stop suppressing free speech and treat people fairly and without discrimination, regardless of their sex, sexuality or status.
  • Emirates Airline and the rest of the aviation industry must help to tackle climate change by reducing their CO2 emissions.

Many authors and illustrators we admire and respect have attended the festival in the past or are booked to attend this year. Although we hope that the campaign will encourage those booked for 2016 to think twice about their decision, the campaign won’t be singling out or targeting individual authors and illustrators. The only people the campaign will be pointing the finger at are the airline and the government that owns it.

You can find further information on all of the issues we're highlighting at the campaign website

Personally, I think any one of the three issues listed above is enough on its own to make Emirates Airline an unacceptable sponsor. However I’m going to devote the rest of this post to climate change as I think this issue is possibly the least tangible of the three, but in urgent need of addressing.

As mentioned above, the continuing growth of Emirates and the rest of the airline industry is critically undermining the efforts made by other sectors to avert climate catastrophe. Transport & Environment, a coalition of environmental organisations from across Europe, have said that the omission of both aviation and shipping from last December’s Paris Climate Change agreement makes it “close to impossible” to limit global warming to less than 2ÂșC, the level above which scientists say the world will see the most severe impacts of climate change.

Despite the efforts of environmental groups, both aviation and shipping were dropped from the Paris Climate Change agreement. (Image from Transport & Environment web site)

Climate change is already responsible for killing an estimated 315,000 people every year and that figure is set to escalate as global warming continues. The increasing severity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as Typhoon Haiyan, has been directly linked to climate change. It was also a key driver in the Syrian conflict and is likely to trigger similar conflicts in the future. And scientists have concluded that climate change was partly responsible for this winter's UK floods and has significantly increased the likelihood of further UK flooding.

I recognise that the Think Twice campaign is unlikely to make a huge profit-driven business like Emirates Airline think twice about increasing their corporate carbon footprint. However I am hoping that the campaign will encourage individuals – not just authors and illustrators – to consider the impact that aviation has on their personal carbon footprint.

Aviation is one of the most emissions-intensive forms of transport; travelling by plane generates between five and ten times as much emissions as travelling by train. And flying allows us to travel far greater distances than we otherwise could. As a result of these two factors, travelling by air can often have an an immense impact on an individual person's carbon footprint.

If you’re worried about the threat climate change poses to future generations, then reducing your meat consumption, insulating your house, turning off unnecessary lights and minimising car use are all worth doing, but the amount of emissions saved by such measures is tiny compared with the amount generated by taking a flight. To put it simply:

If you fly once a year or more, probably the most effective thing you can do to help combat climate change is cut back on your flying.

The graph below shows typical annual UK household CO2 emissions in comparison to the emissions generated by a return flight for a family of four to various destinations, calculated using the National Energy Foundation Carbon Calculator. (Click here for sources and detailed calculations)

Typical annual UK household CO2 emissions compared with return flight emissions to various destinations
(Sources: National Energy Foundation Carbon CalculatorOfgem,  RAC Foundation,  Great Circle Mapper)

A family of four taking a return flight to Majorca (the most popular overseas destination with UK holidaymakers) creates more CO2 than an average UK household generates in an entire year’s electricity use. And a family holiday further afield can result in a household’s annual carbon footprint (combined emissions for gas, electricity, car, aviation and other transport) more than doubling in size.

UK citizens fly more than any other nation.
(click image to enlarge) Source: 
Flying is an elite activity – only one in twenty people worldwide have ever set foot on a plane. And yet the countries that will suffer the most severely from climate change are among those that fly the least.

It may surprise you to learn that UK citizens are by far the worst offenders. We fly more than the people of any other country, twice as much as US citizens (see graph opposite). However just 15% of the UK population are responsible for 70% of all UK flights and most of these frequent flyers are from the richest sections of society (the ABC1 social classes). Huge tax subsidies creating artificially cheap flights and a lack of environmental awareness has meant that, in the space of a generation, flying has gone from being an expensive once-in-a-decade exception to a default holiday option for many Brits.

It’s true that travel broadens the mind. The problem with air travel is that it does so at the expense of those far less fortunate than the traveller and threatens the welfare of generations to come.

If nothing else, I hope the Think Twice Campaign will encourage more people to think twice about flying.

Click here to go to the Think Twice web site.

Follow the campaign on twitter at @eafolthinktwice

Click here to read Zoe Toft’s blog about the Think Twice Campaign.

Click here to read an overview of the effects of aviation on climate change on The Guardian web site.


  1. Thank you, Jonathan. The human rights issues alone would be enough to say a resounding no. Signed. Clare.

    1. Thanks for signing the pledge, Clare. We think individual issues will resonate more with some people more than others, but taken together we think they are a compelling argument for thinking twice about the festival.